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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Saturday, Nov. 22, 2014

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"ParaNorman" hits theaters today.
"ParaNorman" hits theaters today.

"ParaNorman" thrills and chills

I'm probably going to get some hate over this, but I think zombies are played out.

They've lurched into books and onto the big and small screens with all the persistence of any one of society's hypothetical zombie apocalypse scenarios, and for whatever reason this fascination with the living dead just won't, well, die.

But, just like most things in life, it's all in the delivery. And kid-friendly claymation horror comedy "ParaNorman" practically serves these gory brain fiends up on a silver platter.

"ParaNorman" is the first solo production effort from Laika Entertainment, which also helped create "Coraline" and "Corpse Bride." The movie's main character, Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee), is a smart but misunderstood boy of the "I see dead people variety," but without all the complaining. Norman accepts his ability to converse with the dead, even though his family and most of his Salem-esque New England town won't.

He does have some support from the living in fellow outcast Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), as well as his weird uncle/town hobo Mr. Prenderghast (John Goodman), who tasks Norman with a dire responsibility: Protect the town from a centuries-old witch's curse that threatens to raise the dead. After his attempt to follow through on it backfires, Norman is forced to rally his friends and family (a star-studded cast that also includes Anna Kendrick, Casey Affleck, Leslie Mann and Christopher Mintz-Plasse) to save the town from the curse and the zombie horde it unleashed.

From the outset "ParaNorman" revels in its offbeat subject material. The intro gives a clever nod to the crappy grindhouse horror movie genre, and the score carries the theme through the rest of the action – with some legitimately spooky results. It definitely kicks the actual horror of the movie up a notch, which ranges from kooky and endearing to dark scares that will leave even the adults in the audience unnerved.

Conversely, it also delivers some of the better laughs the big screen has seen this year. Norman's sidekick buddy Neil is adorable and hilarious, and provides great foil material to Norman's quirkier, dead-panned one-liners. The humor throughout is witty and well timed – its aim leans more toward the grown-ups in the audience than, say, a funny-for-all-ages Disney flick, but older kids will certainly appreciate it, too.

I say "older kids" because not every small human is created equal, and "ParaNorman" is not for the skittish. Like its predecessor "Coraline," this adventure contains some very scary elements, especially toward the climax. I wouldn't go so far as to say it skirts PG-13 territory, but it does get intense.

Much of this intensity is due to the aforementioned (and very well done) score and equally stunning visuals. The claymation work is fluid, seamless and detailed, and the color palettes are equally vivid and characteristic of the scenes. "Paranorman" is great to watch, but story-wise, it's not perfect. There are some moments that drag out slack in an otherwise tight plot, which is unfortunate considering how solid everything else about the movie is.

So yes, "ParaNorman" is a great zombie movie, but that's mostly because it's simply a great movie. People have just about equated it to the claymation "Goonies," that's how good it is. Time will tell on that one (and I'll probably get even more hate from the "Goonies" lovers for even mentioning it) but put that on the back burner for now – seeing "ParaNorman" is more important.

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